The Power of Compassion
Psalm 95:1-7a; Matthew 25:31-46
Last night PBS aired the Ron Howard documentary “Eight Days a Week.” It details the ascension of the Beatles in the mid 1960’s as kings of popular music. The hysteria was worldwide. Young fans became devoted followers, wearing tour T-shirts, and associating themselves with the band.
As I recall those days, when even I had plenty of long dark hair, the Beatle-mania changed the way people identified with their favorite musicians, especially the front man of the band.
In time the official entourage needed access badges from the performance venue to prove “they were with the band.” In Christian circles, there is still a very human tendency, for us to claim a personal identity with Christ the King, and let the identity of the Savior be our own claim to identity as a child of God. Still we know there is a world of difference between the entourage and the working members of the band.
Bible translations have multiplied at an alarming rate in the second half of my lifetime. Each of the translations have their own priorities when handling the source texts. All of the ancient sources we have for the Bible texts have variations. And even our New Testament manuscripts are old, but copies, and far from original.
I saw a video, referenced in an article about “Justice” in the Bible, that highlighted an interesting choice made in the earliest of Bible translations to English, and that tradition is widely respected in most every English translation since then.
There is a Greek word, that appears over 300 times in the Greek texts of the New Testament. When the word appears in the context of human justice systems, invariably it is translated as “Just, or Justice.” If the word is used in any other context, it is translated as “Righteousness.” And so, people who know only English translations, believe that the New Testament has very little to say about Justice.
In the gospel text for today we have two cases of this justice/righteousness hand off. It is the same Greek word. The GOOD NEWS Bible magnifies the issue, by substituting righteous for “sheep” several times, to make the passage easier to understand.
So when we find the scriptures leading us into the area of social justice, you might be persuaded that it is not justice per se, because your translation makes it a spiritual value of “righteousness.” Surprise, surprise, it is a “justice” issue in the eyes of God, and the readers of the bible in nearly any other language.
So I contend that we are one with all creation. We are made out of the same “star stuff” - as many of us first learned in 1980 watching the PBS Cosmos series, with Carl Sagan talking about “billions and billions of stars”; then refreshed in the 2014 series, with Neil deGrasse Tyson in the chair.
You and I, are all made out of the same stuff. We celebrate what makes us unique, though the building blocks are common. In fact, as we are able to share our uniqueness with one another, we grow in the intimacy or power of our relationship. This is the root of hope for communities of faith, learning to celebrate what makes us the same, and love each other for what makes us unique.
I have hope that people of faith will in time come to love each other, as God loves all of us. We have often celebrated our unique mark as members of the body of Christ. Sadly, Christians are often looking to pick a fight with other Christians, and be even less accommodating to those of other faiths. This ignores that in a deep way, all creatures are marked as children of God. No test of faith, no affirmation of select theological beliefs are required.
So though the present times have us geared to battle over issues, that we infuse with a holy passion of righteousness, this too will pass. There is a day coming, when the pendulum will swing, and first people of compassion, and later the general population, will once again make care for their neighbors a priority.
It is often said in mainline Protestant circles, and even more clearly in the wider circles of contemplative writings, that God and Jesus have a ‘preference for the poor.’ There is an intentionality to take the side of those whom society would judge against and discredit, and hold them up as particularly cared for.
The gospel passage this morning could not be more clear, “whenever you have cared for the least of these, you have done it for me.” We have already talked about how God gave birth to creation, and indeed, we are in the image of God. I have usually preached that the image of God in us is the ability to love and be loved. But as I am growing in my faith through prayer and contemplation this year, I wonder if that might be selling a vision short of the truth, that there is much more to say about how we are made in the image of God.
As the church we are the body of Christ, and the spirit of Jesus - the Holy Spirit, is within us, and would empower our acts of love, care, and generosity. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we share in the symbols of a cross cultural meal; bread and wine; absorbing the physical elements of the sacrament into the very fiber of our bodies.
So let us declare in this worship service, that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Incarnation means that the God of heaven takes on an earthly body - without giving up any identification with the Creator. In Christmas we celebrate the God of glory come to earth under common, ordinary, everyday, earthly circumstances.
As we are the body of Christ, let us consider the proclamation of “The Reign of Christ” formerly known as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday - as the day we acknowledge that we are both: a part of the poor; and we are also one with the Christ. We are both the poor, and we are the Christ. In fact, as we grow in generosity, we draw nearer to the heart of God, and God “sees” the Christ in us.
What would it mean if we claimed our identity as a part of the incarnation? It would mean we would have to take seriously that God lives within our hearts, our minds and our actions. It means we would take seriously our power to bring the blessings of God to all of those we contact. It means that - for better or worse, we have the power to embody God’s presence for others.
In a way it seems scary. Clearly, we are not worthy to be considered a reigning monarch on earth, let alone claim the purity of the God in heaven. So then what gives?
What gives is that we can pretend that our sins against others do not much matter, because ‘we are only human.’ But, in fact, as a part of the body of Christ, we are more than human. Our inclusion in the body of Christ is not a unique honor for us - as it exists in every other person. We are just as much a part of the body of Christ as everyone else. So then any sin against another, is a sin against the Christ.
Can a non-Christian be a part of the body of Christ? I would say that the Christ is the physical representation of the God of Creation. I would say that we belong to that God, not only as a willful act of a faith declaration, but the very stuff of our being, our star stuff, carries the stamp of God, and indelible “Made In Heaven,” stamp, that makes us one with Christ, and with the poor, and with the rocks, and the moon, and the stars.
As a part of an intentional faith community, we are empowered to deliver untold and unlimited grace and blessings to the world. We need to take our power as the body of Christ seriously. We have the power to do what the Christ would do, and bless, sanctify and even save the world.
We do that when we act together to feed the community, as we did with our Thanksgiving Baskets. And each and every time we express God’s love to others, we draw nearer to God, who sees the Christ in our identity.
So as the Christ is raised into the presence of the Almighty after death, so to - we are destined to sit at the feet of the Creator. We are called on Reign of Christ Sunday, to live with power and intention, spreading the blessings of God everywhere we go.
On that final day, when the band of saints, those who sought to play their instruments to deliver God’s justice on this world, are called to step through the Pearly Gates, we can show our stamp and boldly say, “Let me in, I’m with the band.” Amen.
- End playing the final chorus of Dan Fogelberg “The Leader of the Band.”